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Steve_s
Veteran Poster
Username: Steve_s

Post Number: 419
Registered: 04-2004

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Posted on Friday, January 09, 2009 - 07:40 pm:   

“Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin” – Herb Boyd (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster)

Thanks for the posting the list. I've been reading Baldwin's fourth novel, "Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone," and at the beginning of the book, the main character Leo, an actor, has a heart attack onstage, which triggers a long flashback to his youth in Harlem. It begins with this stunning little paragraph, a memory of when he was 10 years old:

When Caleb, my older brother, was taken from me and sent to prison, I watched, from the fire escape of our East Harlem tenement, the walls of an old and massive building, far, far away, and set on a hill, and with green vines running up and down the walls, and with windows flashing like signals in the sunlight, I watched that building, I say, with a child's helpless and stricken attention, waiting for my brother to come out of there. I did not know how to get to the building. If I had, I would have slept in the shadow of those walls, and I told no one of my vigil or of my certain knowledge that my brother was imprisoned in that place. I watched that building for many years. Sometimes, when the sunlight flashed on the windows, I was certain that my brother was signaling to me and I waved back. When we moved from that particular tenement (into another one) I screamed and cried because I was certain that now my brother would no longer be able to find me. Alas, he was not there; the building turned out to be City College; my brother was on a prison farm in the Deep South, working in the fields.


There are 24 commas in the first sentence! It's a quirk of his style that Henry Louis Gates points out in his profile of Baldwin in "Thirteen Ways..." I think it might also be an idiosyncrasy of Henry James, who was influential on Baldwin (although I can't claim to have read any Henry James). In any case, his novels are filled with stupendous pieces like this one.

I ordered "Baldwin's Harlem." I'm also curious to learn what the Publishers Weekly reviewer meant by this observation:

"Longtime Harlem resident Boyd, managing editor of Black World Today, is authoritative, but in his self-proclaimed role as Baldwin's defender, he gives short shrift to the writer's homosexuality and comes across as rationalizing the anti-Semitism Baldwin was repeatedly accused of in his lifetime."

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